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Spikes are not solutions

Jun 17, 2014 10:15 am | Sam Macdonald

Some of the most sickening displays of inhumanity that exist today can be found in our interactions with the homeless.

In cities, where the homeless problem is more ubiquitous and severe, the mistreatment is much more evident. Sometimes itís not in what people do as much as it is what people donít do.

In Edmonton Iíve seen a homeless man drop onto the pavement and pass out on a freezing cold day. The immediate response of most of the people who saw it was to avert their eyes and back away, or walk past such a sight a little more quickly. Luckily someone called emergency services that day before I got my own phone out.

In London, England, sloped benches are built to discourage the homeless from sleeping on them are a common sight, but are not the only black mark on the cityís record when it comes to its treatment of homeless people.

Businesses in London and shamefully, from as close to home as Montreal, have a particularly bad recent record in their dealings with the homeless. Businesses in those places have taken to installing spikes on ledges, and in shaded areas and enclosed spots near doorways where homeless people habitually sleep.

These arenít tiny things either - theyíre an inch high and made out of metal, installed in big plates. The ones in Montreal look like dull, fat spearheads.

Picture those strips of spikes they put on the windowsills of tall buildings to keep pigeons from nesting, only human-sized.

Iíve read columns and stories about ubiquitous violence, both of the emotional and physical variety in cities, directed at the homeless. At the height of privilege and ignorance, Iíve read about groups of university students on pub-crawls abusing homeless people in violent group beat-downs that leave me ashamed to share a planet with people like that.

The problem with any attempt to solve the problem of homelessness is a feature of the problem itself - itís complicated. Even cursory consideration reveals that there is an assortment of circumstances that puts a person into that situation. There can be no fix-all patch to the gaping hole that represents the indignities and struggles the homeless face, the world around, because there are so many problems within that problem that need to be fixed.

Homeless people are veterans, theyíre out of work employees, theyíre estranged children, they are a diverse group with diverse problems.

Itís sickening that anyone in the modern world would reduce their response to the homeless dilemma, to something as brutish and downright medieval as a bed of spikes. Spike plates donít help anyone - they are a displacement, and a sad reminder of how often entitlement precedes compassion.

My kudos goes to the group in London who poured concrete on their spikes to bury them and make the ledges and alcoves hospitable again. My respect goes the protesters in Montreal who harangued and hectored the businesses with spikes until they sheepishly buckled under pressure, and uninstalled them.

Those gestures wonít solve the problem, but they are an admission, in and of themselves, that there are better ways we can deal with the issue other than pushing it aside.


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September 2014